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  • Writer's pictureValerie Harris

The First Time She Saw Paris... Laura Wheeler Waring, 1914

Laura Wheeler Waring first went to Paris in 1914

“Miss Laura Wheeler, a colored girl of Hartford, Conn., has been awarded a European Traveling Scholarship by the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts for her work in the Illustration Department.”

All students receiving the Cresson Traveling Scholarship were asked to sign a contract of sorts, stating that they would use the money appropriately and that they would keep an account of their expenses for review by the Academy on their return. Laura signed her agreement on June 3, 1914. Within two weeks she embarked from New York on the steamship St. Paul.

The tiny St. Paul was by 1914 already considered an old ship, and carried mostly second class passengers and steerage. But it was one of the most economical vessels and was convenient, making weekly runs and crossing the ocean in only six days. Furthermore, with its upholstered drawing room, cherry wood paneled library and artistically decorated dining saloon, the ship still offered enough vestiges of luxury to enhance the sense of excitement for those, like Laura, who were making their first transatlantic voyage.

Laura Wheeler travelled to Europe for the first time on the SS. St. Paul in 1914
The SS St. Paul

“One of the most enjoyable parts of my trip was the great pleasure of being on the sea from morning, all day, and through the night. From the time the sea gulls began to follow the ship until we landed at Southampton, I was anxious to experience my first taste of foreign manners and customs.”

In 1914 The American Girls Club in Paris banned "colored girls" from staying there.

The St. Paul arrived in the port of Southampton, England on Saturday, June 20th. On board with Laura were at least seven of the sixteen students who had received Cresson scholarships that year, along with one Academy teacher and his wife, who served as chaperones. The group travelled together by train from Southampton to London, but everyone was on their own as far as securing lodging there. The Academy group met up again to cross the English Channel to France. Once the group moved on to Paris, Laura found that she was indeed on her own again.

Laura Wheeler Waring in Paris 1914

There were three other young women among the seven Academy students who travelled to Europe on the St. Paul: Mildred and Emily, who were painters, and Helen, who, like Laura, concentrated on the illustration courses.  Arriving in Paris with the prospect of again having to  find lodging, Laura accompanied the three to the American Girls’ Club. Perhaps Mildred, Emily and Helen managed to secure accommodations there. But little had changed at the American Girls Club in the 15 years since the Club had turned the young sculptor, Meta Vaux Warrick away: the “no colored girls allowed” ruling was still in effect. But unlike Meta, Laura refrained from making a fuss, wishing to avoid any American-style unpleasantness on her first trip to the City of Lights.

Unable to stay at The American Girls Club because of her race, Laura found other lodging in Paris.

“I received two addresses from the American Girls Club and started out to hunt the houses. Not knowing any French and being alone I was rather excited, although I enjoyed my experience and fortunately fell into the hands of a remarkably kind woman with moderately priced rooms. I bargained with her in a sign language and she understood.”

Laura then installed herself in a modest but comfortable room on the Rue Brea, only a short walk from le Jardin du Luxembourg.

From there, the summer adventure in Paris began! Multiple visits to the Louvre to see the masterpieces there, day trips touring the French countryside, and reaching out to some of the artist connections she'd received from none other than the "preeminent Negro painter," Henry O. Tanner. In his letter of introduction, Tanner referred to Laura as "a young Miss very well known to my family....Any help you can render to Miss Wheeler will be appreciated by me."

On the lighter side, Laura enjoyed the excitement of the Parisian celebration of Bastille Day along with weeks of sampling French cheeses and rich pastries. And of course, she enjoyed afternoons of people watching and soaking up the culture.

Laura enjoyed people watching in the Luxembourg Gardens.
Le Jardin du Luxembourg

“I took time very often to visit the gardens and what beautiful avenues of trees and beds of flowers and groups of interesting folk were there!”


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Christina Cook
Christina Cook
Mar 23
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

A powerful and enjoyable read. The wonderful old photographs really capture the era and mood!

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